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The Fight About Feminism and Motherhood That Isn’t

Motherhood vs. Feminism? Give me a break. The New York Times recent forum with that title is just another example of the mainstream media ginning up a false dichotomy and presenting two ideas as opposing when they aren’t even mutually exclusive. And for the writers in this false “war” to state that motherhood issues pose an end to feminism shows a frightening but clear ignorance of what feminism was and is and a very strange idea about what motherhood means.

The young blogger LaShaun Williams included in the group of opinion makers. actually gleefully proclaims the end of feminism and speaks the oft spoke lie that feminism forced women out of the house and into the work place, but she isn’t the least of it, although allowing her reactionary attitude into the mix is a surefire way of hitting below the belt. She probably doesn’t even realize that she wouldn’t be featured in the Times if it weren’t for her feminist sisters before her. On the other side, Heather McDonald thinks she is being amusing when she “admits” that she didn’t want to nurse. And then there is Pauline Druckerman’s regurgitating her whole mother/ martyr myth. All of the women writing seem to be pushing back at the idea of perfect motherhood when perfection has never been a reality for any mother. Didn’t Ayelet Waldman put that to rest already?

It may not always be easy to be a working mother. But we now know that if at one time in one’s life or another, motherhood needs to be delayed due to work or work needs to be delayed due to motherhood, it is still perfectly reasonable, possible and desirable to be both a feminist and a mother. At the same time. It is also perfectly plausible to be a mother who denounces feminism even as she benefits from the way it has pushed for women’s equality. But it is not even slightly credible to use the platform of a major newspaper of record to discuss whether it is true that motherhood has put an end to feminism or its opposite is true.

In addition, while The New York Times, Washington Post and other news outlets of record can do a fine job of serious investigative reporting, when they and other mainstream media report begin to write about trends you can be sure those trends have already entered the mainstream, been discussed and often dismissed and that those writing about them currently are way behind the curve. Motherhood and feminism have been both practiced and talked about since feminism began as a movement over a hundred years ago (and likely well before that, if covertly) and there is no more a battle between them now than there ever was. What there is is a need for continued discussion about how to make it possible for our society to support women who wish to work and have a family—which includes legislation making it feasible—and an additional need to allow women who choose to stay home to raise their children (and who have been able to manage the resources to do it) to make that choice without forcing them out of feminism. But that isn’t a fight. It’s a discussion.

In 1995 before the ubiquity of the internet and the way we can now connect with each other, a woman named Ann Allen began a listserve called Feminist Mothers at Home. I had a 7-year-old and a 2-year-old old and I found it a place where women who had worked and would work again could come to discuss how it felt to be both a feminist and a stay-at-home mother. I joined that group, although at the time I considered myself both a full-time mother and a full-time writer. I did not, however, work outside the home. But even before that group, twenty five years ago when I gave birth to my son the same kinds of discussions that are being had now were being had then: breast or bottle, cloth or paper diapers, attachment parenting or helping children learn to sleep alone. There was much discussion over whether it was a good idea to let a baby cry himself to sleep or soothe him. My fellow mothers and I talked about expressing milk, making homemade baby food or feeding from a jar, organic milk or regular, whether slings were a good idea or a bad one. We varied in the ways we disciplined our kids, how we fed them, when and how we put them to bed, when to put them in school, how much to be involved in their activities.

Sound familiar?

The mother who raised me in the 50s and 60s had no one to talk to about those kinds of things, but for the past 40 plus years, at the least, since feminism finally gave women more of a voice in their own lives, none of what is being discussed today is in any way really new.

And pretending it is is manufacturing a fight that serves no one.

Yes, the feminist movement in its early Sixties and Seventies incarnation was angry. It railed against the June Cleaver model. It did not include enough talk about the idea of taking care of the kids while mom worked; it did not embrace women of color and it did not always do a good job of supporting women who were not middle class. It was a hard-hitting idea whose time had long since come: that women needed to be treated fairly, equally, with respect and with decency, and if in the throes of fury some women were not as supportive of each other as they should have been, might have been, that is water under the bridge.

There is no need to recall what we might or might have done better and there is absolutely no reason to make a fight out of motherhood vs feminism,except to excite the masses and deflect from now what is a clear on assault on the rights that women fought so hard for forty years ago; there is no reason for women to bitch slap each other for the pleasure of the men who are just aching to take away what small rights women have been able to hold on to.

With very few exceptions the women I have known have taught me about love, life, sex, work, and how to deal with pain and loss. They have been with me through the traumas that affected us all. I have watched friends die, watched them deal with handicapped children, watch them choose not to have children at all. They have seen me through two marriages, through success and failure. They have had my back and I have had theirs.

So what if we don’t always agree about which is the right way to parent? So what if we make choices that sometimes come back to hit us in the face. So what if our children question the decisions we make? It has been and will always be thus. But the mistakes we made as women, as mothers, as feminists, are our own mistakes and we have to live with them, no matter what choices we make, and every woman I know is at least willing to discuss the repercussions of her decisions and to realize that she may not have all the answers.

You want to sleep with your kid until he is six? Go ahead. You want to go back to work when your baby is a week old? Do that, too. It matters not to me. We make our own decisions with our partners, if we have them, alone if we do not, and we must be willing to bear the consequences. Most of the kids will turn out fine. Some won’t. The best thing we can do is learn when to let go and let them take responsibility for their own paths.

But setting up false dichotomies, false equivalences, fake arguments, and making those all about whether or not feminism is a success or a failure is the king of false dichotomies. Feminism, like any civil rights movement, is supposed to allow us to be equal partners in our work lives, our home lives, our love lives, our sex lives. It is supposed to give us the freedom to choose, not narrow our choices. There is a real war on women being waged by men (and some women) to take back the strides we have made. Wouldn’t it be a shame if a fight among ourselves, a useless, wasteful, shameful fight was the thing that finally undid us all?

4 thoughts on “The Fight About Feminism and Motherhood That Isn’t”

  1. Brilliantly said, Lisa. Feminism gave us choices our mothers and earlier generations didn’t have. One would hope we would be smart enough to cherish that and respect one another when we make tbose choices thoughtfully. Women snarking at each other is just dumb.

  2. This is a brilliant post Lisa, but I have to address the question of whether our mothers had choices. Let me play devil’s advocate.

    The one choice my mother and aunts had that this generation does not have is the choice to stay at home with their young children, their sick family members, their aging parents. I was born in 1945. I grew up in a working class neighborhood. The dad was the only college graduate on the block. People had large families. There were good union jobs that enabled a family to be supported on one paycheck. We lived very frugally. Children had far more freedom because there was someone at home, and neighbors looked out for children. We could spend Saturdays outside all day, only coming home for dinner, unsupervised by no one but older siblings.

    My mom, my aunts, my friend’s moms had large families when they were very young. When their youngest entered grade school, most of them went back to college and had fulfilling careers. The experience and wisdom they have gained from mothering large familes was much more respected than it is now. Back in the bad old days, volunteers often had real autonomy. Now it is very difficult to volunteer without being vetted by a social worker as if you were applying for a full-time job.

    Women’s progress is hindered by our compulsion to prove that we aren’t like our mothers and grandmothers, that we have surpassed them in ways they never dreamed of. My grandma and mother were the strongest people I know, and they were both feminists.

    Was feminism the unwitting handmaiden of corporate capitalism? Just when women had the choice to work, real wages froze and they were required to work.

  3. That is a good question, Mary Joan. I don’t think feminism was the unwitting handmaiden but I do think that the failing economy has had an impact. I suspect it was easier for middle class women to choose to stay at home in the early 80s and the 90s when things were economically more sound. Now, unless one is upper middle class, there is great sacrifice of income.

  4. I have always felt I am one of the few women with my education and intellect who chose to stay home with her children for as long as I did. I expected to go back to work when Vanessa was three months, and I did free-lance editing until her sister was born two years later. But I fell madly in love with my brilliant little girls. I recall telling a friend, “How ironic. I never believed in maternal instincts and yet I am drowning in their tidal waves.” And my daughters are among the most fascinating people I know. It’s never been easy though. Sometimes I feel they want to clip my wings when I did everything I could to help them soar.

    I have asked them: “Is it wrong to think your grandkids are even more adorable than your kids were?” They assure me it is a compliment to their taste in men.

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